This story is by Rebecca Hardy and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. She’d been regularly irregular since the diagnosis five years ago. There was even a period when she thought it would never come back. She didn’t feel much about it, either way. It was an inconvenience when it came and when it didn’t. Another blessing of womanhood.
He had told her that his ex was pregnant on their second date, so it wouldn’t exactly be unchartered territory for him anyway. That was also the weekend he had taken her to Florence for her birthday. Her friends had told her not to go at the time, of course. She barely knew him and had already confessed that she didn’t find him attractive. But that was why they were single. Dating was always a risk and, back then, she took risks like he took cocaine.
She still remembered that weekend so clearly. He had taken her up in a hot air balloon, her fear of heights notwithstanding. She could still see the colours of the canvas blazing into the sky. She didn’t know what had made her more nervous: the toy cars beneath them or the touch of his hand as they looked out over the city. The wicker weave of the gondola had left red marks under her grip.
He had been so charming. She remembered his smile most because it twisted to one side of his face. She thought it had a crooked charm. He didn’t smile so much anymore, but back then that smile was enough for her. It was enough to wait for, alone in his flat, every time he went away on business. She had always gone through life waiting, but it was usually for the right time to run. Wherever she was, whoever she was with, she kept her shoelaces tied and her bag half-packed. But for some reason his smile had been enough for her to stay. Even after she had found that first stash of powder. As long as he didn’t do it in the house it wouldn’t affect her, anyway. Plus, she wasn’t convinced that he would stop if she asked him. Now every morning was like the start of a winter thaw: she woke up thinking all the snow had melted but still found stubborn pockets of white unmoved in the shadows of his eyes. She had learned to wrap up against the cold of it. He had bought her the world in return, never thinking to ask if she wanted it.
Life had taught her early that the male sex was a medium through which she could get her own way. She wasn’t malicious but she would always admit to being selfish and impatient and, anyway, it was too easy a habit to break. By giving them a taste and keeping them hungry, it kept them close. And it harvested something within her that was just hers: desire. She liked how it felt in her hands and how it softened with the heat of her body; how she could let the clay of it seep between her fingers as she moulded it gently to fit her purpose.
She would never concede that he had bought this from her but, looking back, perhaps he had. She was surprised that she had surrendered it so quickly. But any desire for his desire had been carried up with them in that hot air balloon and was yet to return. She didn’t know her own way anymore, let alone how to operate aeronautical machinery. It was never coming back.
So she had given him everything without hesitation and he had never protected her. Not that she minded in the beginning: he was new and exciting and she was on the pill. But now he was faded and routine and that little packet, with all its days marked out, had become the chalk with which she marked each day inside the cell of herself. Some days she wanted to at least pretend to escape.
Only infrequently and always so that he would find out. Usually when his friends were dusting downstairs. At least it would elicit some kind of response that she knew he hadn’t already given to someone else. Anger was as hot as desire and parched enough to keep her thirsty. And he could get so angry.
Riled accusations would spit from his bellows like lightning from thunder; she laughed into them, they were so hollow. But she knew they would flash behind her eyes like the negatives of sunlight for days after. So she would fashion screams from her laughter and scatter them around the house for their audience below. Later, when they were alone again, he’d squeeze her throat just enough to make her gulp each one of them back in. Then she’d drink the smell of warm whiskey that had soaked into his breath as he hissed the threats he didn’t even want the night to hear.
When she was younger she wanted a love that she could etch into stone. That would bleed into her and scar. Now she realised the love she wanted was one she could write in sand. Something she could see, something that she could feel just by tracing its surface. And something that could be wiped clean after the storm. She had built her love for him into a sandcastle: it glistened gold in the sunlight but it was always ready to collapse. The thrill of its instability and the ease with which it could be rebuilt reassured her.
It never occurred to her that anything would come of it, of them. Anything concrete. She had never displayed the usual symptoms, after all. Yes, she had enjoyed scandalous flutterings of irregularity in the past, but even those irregularities were irregular. That’s why she had enjoyed them. Consistency concerned her. And the thin, dark weeping of blood had become consistent. She couldn’t be arsed. After three weeks of Google searches, it became all too apparent that she had developed cervical cancer.
Of course this would happen to her. Inconsolable by the irrefutable evidence of it all, she had called her mum to whisper the prognosis into the reciever. Her mum came over after work and cried with her. Obviously. She quickly dried her eyes.
‘And you’re sure you’re not…?’
No! She had yelped, knowing it was a lie before she knew it was a lie. Her mother had brought a test with her on the off-chance and one well-aimed piss swept her cancer diagnosis off the table. Her mum started crying again, but this time the tears soaked into a smile. It was time for her to go. After she closed the door he asked her if she wanted a glass of wine and when she refused he knew why.
He was furious: two kids under the age of two by two different women? Too many twos for one man. But she couldn’t see how they would even get there. Something didn’t sit right. She had been unstemmable for three weeks now, weak and dark and stale. Cancer still seemed more likely.
The doctors justified her reluctance later that week: it wasn’t cancer but it was on its way out. Figures, she thought. After a perfectly civil car ride home, she was surprised to feel compelled to run upstairs, lock herself in the bathroom and weep. Her throat was so full of everything that couldn’t stay inside of her that she was muzzled into a silent breathlessness. Her face seethed and contorted with pressure. Panic eventually snatched the air back into her lungs and she braved a quick glance at the mirror that lingered in self-deprecative horror. The ugliness of her crying face astonished her. That’s when you know, she reasoned woefully, and became racked with grief once more.
The tears had been full and fat and had etched deep tracks into her foundation. When she became confident that she had composed herself, she covered the betrayal, went back downstairs and drank the glass of wine that was waiting for her. She didn’t have much appetite. A few days later she felt it come away inside of her; it wrenched her in two. In the bathroom, she watched her body carry it out of her in a guttering stream: a Moses of modern art, floating in a basket weaved by Picasso.
Tears threatened again, wrestling her into a chokehold and pressing their hot blade against the skin of her eyes. Their ambush was expected and she dabbed at the thought of them before they soaked through. Tears seemed frivolous. She didn’t feel sad when she looked down into that bowl of clotted claret. She didn’t feel real. She felt nothing.
Her Mum brought her flowers steeped in silence. A week later, she told her friends over drinks. They were sufficiently sympathetic; they offered condolences that they didn’t know how to say and that she didn’t know how to hear. Then they told her she shouldn’t have gone through it alone. She hadn’t thought to invite them.
And so she had fallen.
She floated through days like kettle steam through a window. She thought that forgetting the rest of herself would help to forget the part of her that was lost forever. But nepenthe was bitter and the draught she sipped slipped through her like a spirit, while the guilt in its aftertaste burned stronger in her chest.
Days were lost in weeks before she realised she had missed her opportunity to speak of her born unborn. He refused to partake in any ressurection, even of memory. For a while she flattered him by thinking he didn’t want to upset her but she knew he didn’t want to upset him. It didn’t matter anyway: his relief had clotted on her tongue and gagged her. She couldn’t bring herself to bring any of it back up, to him or to anyone. Soon people stopped asking if she was ok so she stopped lying.
The grief was hers, after all, and she guarded it fiercely. It was the heavy emptiness that had sunk into her and that had risen up around her; that had nestled inside a cavity that had always been there. Now she would feel the weight of it, always. The blackness of it was a thick, sticky velvet that swaddled her in insomnia. But a star had flared inside of that night. It had danced and blazed. Far from her, but from her. Was it night? Or was it just the dark side of morning?
It wasn’t a choice she had made, but it had been decided within her. So perhaps it was hers, after all. She had never been great with choices. She found them to be an axe with which she had hacked away at herself; she had whittled and splintered until she had hewn herself hollow. But now she knew that the hole inside of her could be filled. She could pack the sand of him into her again so that they could build another castle. This one might not crumble.
When he next took her she was ready. She writhed and moaned and stirred a fire that flushed into her cheeks. He pummelled her with abandon and she felt herself fall, once more. And fill.
He deflated and she savoured the cool steel of triumph on her lips. When he tasted them later, he writhed and moaned and threatened and cursed but she had emptied his words. He would never break what was his. He was a balloon, filled with nothing but hot air.
When they said it would change her life they meant it would ruin it. She could see it in their faces, somewhere in their eyes. She didn’t mind, really. She would admit that it wasn’t how she dreamed it would be. But neither was love. Neither was life. Maybe all of it was a dream. Except this. This was grainy and unsteady and rough and imperfect. It was real.